IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The GOP doesn't know what the charges are against Trump — and doesn't care

Even without knowing what the grand jury charged him with, Republicans are rushing to the former president's defense.

I’ll say this for Republicans: They know how to follow a script. When news broke on Thursday evening that former President Donald Trump had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, the GOP reaction was almost unanimously on message.

From the halls of Congress to the Florida governor’s mansion and across the internet, prominent Republicans denounced the indictment. In their telling, the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are “outrageous,” a “national embarrassment” and an “unprecedented abuse of power.” The fact that none of them have any idea what those charges are is a secondary, if not tertiary, concern.

Trump arraignment: Follow our live blog beginning at 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday for the latest updates and analysis on Trump’s arrest in New York.

Still, it’s easy to track the logic behind the claim that the charges against Trump were filed “for pure political gain” as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin tweeted. We likely won’t know exactly what Trump is charged with until his arraignment on Tuesday, when Bragg’s office will unseal the indictment. (NBC News reports that it includes more than 30 counts against Trump, but how many crimes he’s accused of committing and their magnitude remain unknown.) In this liminal space between the grand jury’s vote and the charges being made public, almost all Republicans opted to hedge on the side of Trump being unfairly persecuted rather than appear insufficiently loyal.

In this liminal space between the grand jury’s vote and the charges being made public, almost all Republicans opted to hedge on the side of Trump being unfairly persecuted rather than appear insufficiently loyal.

For some, the cries of foul play were steeped in bitter irony. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Bragg had “weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Donald Trump.” McCarthy had already directed Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and other committee chairs to look into Bragg’s investigation because — and I’m paraphrasing here — something something federal tax dollars. But as Bragg’s office rightfully pointed out in a reply to Jordan and his fellow chairs on Friday that it’s House Republicans’ not-so-innocent request for information about the Trump case that amounts to “unlawful political interference.”

For other Republicans, the rush to defend Trump seemed to play against their own interests. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that he wouldn’t participate in an extradition of Trump, even though that’s not exactly something he has a choice about. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who famously had to flee a mob that Trump directed at him and his family, called the indictment a “campaign finance issue” and refused to say whether Trump should end his presidential campaign if convicted. Though both men are challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination next year, they still rallied behind their rival rather than take advantage of his weakness.

And for still others, it made sense to keep their wagon hitched to Trump for as long as his base stands by him. Republican Senate candidates rushed to put down markers for 2024 endorsements from Trump. All three Republicans in the Kentucky race for governor, for example, quickly condemned Bragg, so as not to let one of their opponents gain the upper hand. And Sebastian Gorka, the former White House semi-official, said on a podcast that the indictment will show “who are the politicians, who are the grifters, and who are the America First patriots.”

There are several things striking about this Republican reflex to defend Trump. The most pressing is that the statements and tweets are all so unnecessarily hyperbolic and fawning. Under our justice system, Trump is innocent until proven guilty. The charges against him are just charges, and it wouldn’t be misplaced for some of these statements to be taken down several dozen notches. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., was one of the few to take the more measured approach. “There’s checks and balances with a jury, judges and appeals,” he told Axios. “President Trump will be able to make his defense and we’ll all see if this is a partisan prosecution or not.”

It may be that Republicans are learning from the first impeachment saga — when shown Trump’s transcript with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, many of Trump’s supporters in Congress were reportedly surprised to find that the conversation wasn’t as blatantly extortionist as they’d feared. May as well lean in to a full-throated defense now when things are still so unclear versus seeming to bandwagon later.

And should the charges be both serious and backed up with new information in the charging documents, well, that’s a problem for their future selves to deal with. For now, the risk of tagging yourself as being in support of an accused criminal is worth any consequences with moderate and independent voters down the line. As when considering staunch Republican voters, with their crucial primary votes and donations, it would likely be easier to walk back any defense of Trump should he be found guilty than to be tagged as unsupportive in his hour of need should he be acquitted.